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A Sailor Recounts How His Aircraft Carrier Was Sunk During World War II

November 9, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: USS YorktownCarriersBattle Of MidwayU.S. NavyWorld War IIRay Daves

A Sailor Recounts How His Aircraft Carrier Was Sunk During World War II

The tragic story of the USS Yorktown.

When I looked up, I saw a huge cloud of black smoke and shrapnel outside the bridge, and the captain was not standing in front of the window anymore. He was inside the radio room with me. I wanted him to stay there, but he didn’t. He stepped out again, because the helmsman couldn’t hear his turning orders, and another plane was coming toward the bridge, and there was another big explosion, and I fell down again.

The dials on the radios were flickering, and I didn’t believe this was how I was going to die because I’d just turned 22. I heard men shouting––no, screaming–– somewhere outside the bridge, but there was no sound at all from the ship’s engines. The Yorktown was dead.

A Hole in the Deck

I’m not sure how long I was out. I came to dizzy and disoriented. My ears were still ringing from the explosions. It hurt to breathe because of all the smoke on the bridge. Worst of all, I was alone in the dark. I have no memory of when the captain closed the door to the emergency radio room. I wasn’t even sure the enemy planes were gone until I heard his voice. He was not shouting anymore; he was talking to someone on the ship’s phone. At least that still worked. It sounded like he was taking damage reports from the engine room. He was so cool and steady, you’d have thought he was inquiring about his dry cleaning or the price of fish.

The Yorktown was not moving when I opened the door. I honestly believed the captain was about to give the “abandon ship” order. Which was a scary thought, because I didn’t know how. The Navy didn’t teach us that in basic training. Then again, maybe they did. I missed a lot of stuff while I was in the pool.

You don’t know how glad I was when I heard the captain say the engines were going to restart. I even heard him tell the XO that we could start launching and recovering planes as soon as the flight deck was repaired. I thought that was a pretty big if. There was only one hole in the flight deck, but it was huge––10 or 12 feet wide––and it was less than 30 feet from the island. If that bomb was intended to kill the captain and all the senior officers on the bridge, I would call it a near miss. I knew I was lucky to be alive.

There was no reason for me to stay inside my battle station at that time, so I volunteered to help repair the hole in the flight deck. Not being a carpenter, there wasn’t much I could do there either, but I figured they could use another hand for the grunt work. I don’t know if I would have done that if I’d known that the hole was really the least of the bomb damage.

Burials at Sea

I didn’t see the bodies until I climbed down from the bridge. I don’t know how many––20, 30, maybe more. They were hard to look at and hard to count, because most of those men were just blown to pieces. The guys in the ship’s band––I remember the harp insignias on their sleeves––were helping the corpsmen lay out all the body bags.

I was having flashbacks from the smell. There is nothing close to the odor of cooked human flesh. I smelled it at Pearl Harbor, I smelled it in the Coral Sea, and somebody must have burned to death on the flight deck at Midway, because I smelled it there, too.

The ship’s carpenters were calling for more lumber and sheet metal to repair the hole. I turned and ran with the guys who were going down to the hangar deck to get it for them.

There were a lot of casualties on that level, too. I saw the assistant chaplain on his knees next to a row of about 15 body bags. I thought he was praying for those men, which he probably was, but then I saw his hands groping around inside the bags. He was searching for their dog tags, and he would not allow the corpsmen to pull the drawstring until he found them. There really was no other way to identify those poor guys. Their faces were just gone.

The chaplain himself was already doing burials at sea, or I should say, he was trying to. He had five or six sailors to help him set up the board with the flag draped over it, but they weren’t doing very well. I saw one guy slip and fall down in the blood, another was passed out, and two of them were hanging over the rails vomiting. They were just teenagers, probably fresh out of boot camp when they joined us at Pearl Harbor.

I felt sorry for them. They hadn’t even been to sea for a week, and now they’re in combat, picking up parts of bodies and putting them in bags and hosing the blood off the deck and tipping the board.

There was no time for a proper funeral for anyone at Midway. Everyone knew there were at least one or two more Japanese aircraft carriers out there, and it was still early in the day. Their search planes had plenty of daylight to find the Yorktown and hit us again if they wanted to. I assumed they would. And I’m not going to lie and say I was any less afraid of the next attack than those guys that were fainting and puking on the hangar deck.

But I guess I’d finally got to the point where I could let go of the fear and do my job. I don’t know why I never got sick to my stomach. It never affected me that way. It just made me more angry, made me want to fight harder.

I dropped my load of lumber on the flight deck and went back for more. The ship’s carpenters worked up more of a sweat than I did. They had that hole patched in less than an hour.

“Don’t Start Chasing Tails”

I was inside the radio shack when I heard the engines come back on line. A few minutes later, I felt the ship begin to move. The radio gang was cheering. We cheered some more when the radios stopped shorting out, but I still couldn’t get anything but static from Brazier’s torpedo squadron. The other radiomen were worried, too. We were all friends with the gunners, and they were long overdue.

I didn’t want to discuss what could have happened to the torpedo planes. I just wanted to keep listening to that frequency, and that’s what I was doing when we got the next radar warning: Another large group of planes was approaching the Yorktown. We couldn’t tell how many or what kind; we just knew they were Japanese. I didn’t think it was a social call. I was halfway up the ladder to my battle station when the klaxon went off for the second time that day.

The ship was still not up to full speed, but it must have been something close to 20 knots because I saw fighter planes taking off from the flight deck. Captain Buckmaster was already talking to the pilots in the air when I got to the bridge. He always told them, “Protect the fleet,” but this time he also said. “Don’t start chasing tails.” I’m sure they knew what he meant.

Everybody knew the Japanese fighter planes were faster than ours. It was useless to try to get behind a Zero. As my friend Brazier explained it to me, our pilots were just beginning to learn some new maneuver where they flew in pairs. The object was to let the Zero get behind you, and then lead him in front of your wingman’s guns. It was just funny to hear the captain put it that way. “Chasing tails” was something we did on liberty. It’s what sailors called it when we were trying to get the attention of the girls ahead of us on sidewalks and beaches in Honolulu. In any other situation I would have laughed. But not at Midway. Those fighter pilots were the Yorktown’s first line of defense, and they were willing to die to protect her.

“Torpedoes!”

I don’t know how many enemy planes our fighters shot down. I’m sure they did their best, and so did the cruisers and destroyers around the Yorktown; I could hear their antiaircraft guns going off in the distance. But I still didn’t know what kind of planes were attacking us until the XO hollered, “Torpedoes!”

I did not see the wakes––the captain was blocking my view––but I knew what was coming. I braced myself. I did not fall down when the ship swerved out of the way. Captain Buckmaster was so good at that, I’m sure he would have avoided them all if the engines had been at full speed. But then I saw the plane approaching low from the port side. It was only 700 or 800 yards away when it dropped the torpedo. I heard the captain call out another turning order, but the Yorktown wasn’t fast enough. There was nothing anybody could do but stare at the wake of that torpedo and wait for the hit.